Deteriorating climate requires more aggressive action
By Craig S. Altemose
THE LATEST CLIMATE SCIENCE has come in, and it’s time to update our state’s climate laws.
As a graduate student working on climate change in 2008, I was proud to help lead hundreds of students from across Massachusetts to campaign effusively for the passage of our state’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act. It was, and remains, the nation’s most aggressive binding climate law, and everyone who helped pass it and all the legislators who voted for it should remain proud of that accomplishment, particularly the bill’s visionary co-sponsors, Sen. Marc Pacheco and recently-retired representative Frank Smizik.
And yet the source of that pride—the knowledge that we were aligning Massachusetts’ policies with the latest and best available science—should now leave all of us who care about a livable future feeling unsettled. Because the latest and best science has changed.
The 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act was based on the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which aimed at helping society avert a 4-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature.
While that may not seem like a lot, our climate system is actually pretty sensitive, just like the human body.
It turns out increasing the planet’s temperature by 4 degrees may be as dangerous as increasing your body’s internal temperature a comparable amount; as we know, going from 98.6 degrees to 102.6 degrees is pretty serious.
To have a 50 percent chance of avoiding the catastrophe that would come with a 4-degree temperature rise, the IPCC said in 2007 that developed nations such as the United States should reduce their climate pollution 25 to 40 percent by 2020 and 80 to 95 percent by 2050 (below the 1990 baseline levels).
Massachusetts became the only state in the nation to adopt legislation requiring us to land within that range (25 percent by 2020 and at least 80 percent by 2050), putting our state in line with other nations such as the 27-member European Union and Japan.
Since 2008, three critical trends have been observed that have changed the calculus of what we need to do.
Two of these trends (worsening science outlook and delayed action) are unsettling, while the third (clean energy growth) is more promising.
The first trend is that the science has continued to be updated, and continues to look worse.
The IPCC’s latest report issued earlier this year has demonstrated that 3 degrees Fahrenheit, not 4 degrees Fahrenheit, is the more appropriate, safer target that society must achieve.
It’s the difference between keeping some coral reefs—currently home to over 25 percent of all marine life—or having them all disappear, along with most of the fish and people who rely on them for food.
It’s the difference between hundreds of millions of people being able to continue living with relative peace and prosperity in their ancestral homelands, and those hundreds of millions of people being displaced and migrating across international lines, creating massive migration crises, food riots, and the collapse of governments.
It’s the difference between a world we mostly recognize, and one we do not.
The second, related trend is the under-implementation of climate solutions around the world. With global climate pollution continuing to rise over the past decade instead of dropping, we must be even more ambitious in our pollution reduction to achieve the same result, because it’s the total amount of pollution (the stock), not how much we emit in a given year (the rate), that counts.
In other words, if you have a deadline to run a marathon, and you decide to walk the first 10 miles, you have to run the rest of the course a lot faster to hit your deadline than you would have if you had started running at the beginning.
That’s where we are—we have great distance to cover in relatively little time.
The latest IPCC report suggests that the whole world now needs to halve global emissions by 2030 and zero them out by 2050 in order to have a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
And given Massachusetts’ history of progressive leadership; above-average wealth; absence of coal, oil, and gas deposits; and robust clean tech sector, we should be doing substantially more, not less, than the global average.
Which leads me to the more promising trend: clean energy has advanced dramatically in the last decade.
The price of solar and wind – both onshore and offshore – has dropped tremendously, and is economically competitive with coal, oil, and gas in more and more places with each passing day, while breakthroughs around energy storage, smart grids, microgrids, and electric vehicles are proceeding aggressively.
Quite simply, we have the technology we need to advance a transition off of fossil fuels, and using 2018 technology to charge forward aggressively with that transition is a lot easier than charging forward with 2008 technology.
These three trends – more accurate climate science, delayed action, and a rapid growth in climate solutions – all point to the same conclusion: we can, should, and must redouble our efforts on climate change and support ambitious, science-based targets. If we truly want Massachusetts to assume its historic leadership role on this greatest crisis facing humanity, then we should have all of our policies driving toward 2030, not 2050, as the deadline for our work.
Doing so will require creative imagination, the courage to disrupt business-as-usual politics regarding our “public” utilities, and to grapple with tough choices. But there are some serious upsides to chartering an ambitious and bold response to climate change. We can also help infuse society with an inspiring and meaningful shared purpose. We can take advantage of the coming economic restructuring to simultaneously address systemic issues of racial and socioeconomic inequalities. We can move our economy away from one with disposable things and disposable people toward one that invests in healthy, whole, resilient communities. And we can save life on earth as we know it.
Many are now starting to frame such an aggressive, holistic response as a Green New Deal, with an emphasis on heavy government intervention on clean energy and jobs creation to advance critical social needs. Key components include a guaranteed good-paying job for anyone willing to work as part of the transition off of fossil fuels, and a particular focus on ensuring that fossil fuel workers, workin- class communities, and communities of color equitably share the benefits of this transition, all with an eye toward prompt and ambitious action on the timeline—years, not decades—that counts.
As tough as this path may seem, the choice is truly an easy one.
Will we take the necessary steps to repower and rework our economy, or will we continue on a path of gradual, inadequate actions and watch as California burns, oceans rise, storms strike, and crops fail?
It’s time for Massachusetts to accelerate our efforts to build a better future that works for all of us and take the lead in a proportionate response to the climate crisis.
Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of Better Future Project and 350 Mass Action.
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